In Madrid art by day, flamenco by night.
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My first name is George, and my grandson is the fourth person to bear that name in our family, So I was naturally taken with Peter Paul Rubens’s Saint George Battles the Dragon (Ca. 1607), an imposing painting approximately 14 feet by 10, which portrays the great saint on a mighty steed slashing away at one really ugly beast. I loved this piece by the great Flemish painter.
But one would be hard pressed to name any paintings one does not like in the Prado’s expansive inventory of the great Spanish and European masters.
The Thyssen-Bornemisza is a wonderful, smaller museum often overlooked by many visitors to Madrid. The collection is most impressive encompassing the works of Titian, Tintoretto, Caravaggio, Canaletto, Cezanne, Monet, Matisse, Toulouse-Lautrec, Renoir, Pisarro, Degas, Constable, Van Gogh, Picasso, and Dali.
This museum exists due to the munificence of modern-day celebrities: Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza, a German-Hungarian magnate and world-class art collector, and his wife, Carmen Tita Cervera, a former Miss España and ex-wife of movie star Lex Barker of Tarzan fame (Barker was also a direct descendant of Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island).
The Baroness’s full-length portrait, along with one of the dapper Baron, can be found in the lobby of the museum. She is a striking beauty and earns my vote.
The Baron died in 2002. His widowed wife proved herself to be an accomplished collector. She and her son have been in litigation over several art works he claims are owed to him. The museum’s collections are clearly delineated between His and Hers.
The government restored the family villa to house the collection. Two adjoining buildings and a great deal of renovation has been undertaken to accommodate the growing collection and provide room for major exhibitions.
According to Lonely Planet’s guidebook, Madrid Encounter, “When the Madrid City Council announced plans in April 2006 to reroute the traffic lanes in front of the Museo del Prado on the eastern side of the Paseo del Prado so that they ran past the Thyssen, the baroness threatened to publicly chain herself to a tree if the plan went ahead.” The outcome of this controversy was foreordained: “The prospect of taking on one of Madrid’s favourite daughters proved too much for the council, who quietly shelved the plans.”
Flamenco as an art form has its roots in the province of Andalusia going back 500 years. Like starving artists everywhere, the singers, dancers, and guitarists migrate to the big city, Madrid, to make a living in their chosen profession. I am informed that flamenco is a fusion of Moorish (Arabic), Gypsy, Jewish and Spanish cultures,
It is passionate, rhythmic, electric, seductive.
Mary and I were able to attend a performance at Café Patas, a popular tablao (dance floor or flamenco venue), which started at 10:30 p.m. Who would want it any earlier? The stage was slightly elevated and small, the size of a modest living room, illuminated by stage lighting. The audience was jammed into the place on two sides but accessible to the servers from the bar. These cramped quarters actually enhanced the immediacy and intimacy of the performance.
The performance opened with three male singers and two guitarists, all in black, coming on stage and taking seats against the back and side walls on the stage. They commenced a kind of a jam session, alternating back and forth between guitar playing and singing, both solo and in unison.
Soon a male dancer, also in black, came out and began the first flamenco dance of the evening. Next, a lovely young woman appeared, not in red, but in a long, light violet dress and performed to the accompaniment of singing, strumming, clapping and snapping, her own and the men’s, sans castanets. Evidently, they are a later accretion to the art form and are not traditional.
As the evening progressed, the artists combined all their skills, coming together, singing, playing, man and woman dancing together, in a passionate crescendo which engulfed the audience in an intense musical and emotional conclusion. And the crowd cried out for more.
We were told that Café Patas is a fine flamenco club, but not the best. We can hardly imagine what “best” is for such powerful and overwhelming artistry. But we hope to learn someday.
In Madrid one can get lost in the Prado and in the depths of the Spanish soul through the alchemy of flamenco song and dance.
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